Form and function: the role of beauty in China

One can’t fail to be impressed by London. It truly is one of the great capitals of the world. As much as I might shudder at the prospect of visiting London for all its deprivations (weather, bad coffee, crowds, transport etc), once there I find it enchanting. In a way my experience of London is typical of everyone’s experience of London: a beautiful city which could be so much more functional.

Prior to Christmas I made some observations about London’s coffee. It’s definitely improved but generally, it’s still yuk. Part of my argument rested on the tension between labour and capital. A good coffee is a function of competent and incentivised labour. In Australia, the best coffee comes from independent rather than chain stores. This was highlighted by the decision of Starbuck’s to exit many Australian locations, largely because of competition. The problem for the UK, but particularly London is that capital still has the strongest hand. Rents are high, economies of scale make sense. Chains are able to operate more profitably than independent stores. In effect, I argued independent stores must subsidise their coffee at some point, probably through low wages.

The challenge for London is to lower rents. But as with successive governments failed attempts, there’s really not a solution. Not a solution, at least, that does not require the wholesale destruction of what we all most like about London because only an increase in supply can properly shift prices r(eplacing lower density areas with higher density areas). Take Kensington and Chelsea for example, a beautiful example of Georgian and Victorian architecture. An area of great beauty, yet, at the same time, entirely disfunctional because it’s relatively low density living excludes so many. In a way it serves as a guard post from the movie In Time: the low rise, low density housing and narrow streets making access to other parts of the capital more expensive.

There is no permanent balance between form and function

That’s the problem with balancing form and function. Beauty is ultimately infinite. We can not get enough beauty. And as much as some may argue “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” there is a universality to beauty, or at least the most beautiful things. Things of architectural, natural or artistic beauty are appreciated by people of every generation, across many generations and of different cultures and creeds. One only has to visit a tourist site anywhere in the world to see this born out. What humanity perceives to be most beautiful is generally universal.

I’m not an architect, nor a casual student of the discipline. But thinking about London and its functionality as a city highlighted the value of purely utilitarian architecture from an economic perspective. There can not be a balance between form and function. Form, at its best, is eternal, attractive to the eye of everyone. Functionality, however, is not so eternal. Buildings and infrastructure lose their functionality with time as populations grow and change and technology emerges and shifts. This is the nature of the mansions and mews of Kensington and Chelsea.

Functional architecture can create great utilitarian outcomes. Build something functional, use it until it becomes disfunctional and its lack of form makes it easy to pull down and start again. This seems to be China’s model. China’s public architecture, for the most part, is entirely utilitarian. Yes, there are some beautiful pieces of modern architecture, Beijing’s Opera House for a start. But broadly, it’s ugly. This of course makes it perfect for demolition as it loses its economic value.

Beijing Opera House

Beijing Opera House

China has embraced form over function

Chinese cities, with utilitarian architecture, should be able to expand in such a way that limits some of the inequalities that persist in more historic cities. The absurd photos of homes and their foundations standing like cairns in the midst of a building site are symptomatic of China’s ruthless approach to edifices that no longer make sense, functionally. Similarly, new model cities strive to remove this problem at the start by planning for capacity years or decades into the future.

The exception to this is Beijing. China of course has no desire to destroy the palaces around the Forbidden City, indeed, they still serve a very practical purpose. The residential hutong , however, are a different case. It seems that foreigners, people such as Prince Charles, have been more resistant to Beijing’s hutongs being destroyed than the Chinese. Hutongs inhabit this form versus function problem. They obviously harken to a past age in Beijing and as such have value in their form, particularly for tourists.

Hutong Beijing

But they also serve to increase levels of inequality in Beijing. (Indeed, a Chinese friend suggested that to the Chinese they represent a grim and distant past.) They aren’t great places to live: small, cramped and often without individual bathrooms (there are communal bathrooms in courtyards). Furthermore, they add to the sprawl of Beijing. Low density at the heart of Beijing adds to the need for a greater sprawl on the outskirts, making life for those on the outskirts slightly more difficult.

Functionality alone is never enough

But like the tourists in London, and most definitely myself, the Chinese want more than just functionality. We, as humans, crave form, beauty. As I’ve travelled in China I am often staggered by the opulence (maybe faux opulence) I come across. In rural Chongqing, I shared a banquet with local steel makers in one of the most decadent environments I’ve come across. Then there are the developments designed to replicate towns in Europe, a quaint English village, a medieaval Italian town or gingerbread Austria. Or similarly, it’s evident in brands. The Chinese yearn for foreign brands. This is despite the fact that their economy, largely for systemic reasons, is incapable of creating them.

Chongqing hall
Chongqing hall
Chongqing restaurant
Chongqing restaurant

My observations of China have focused on the efficiency of its economy. China invests aggressively in ways that have created substantial productivity improvement. This efficiency is, however, predicated on a utilitarianism determined purely from the perspective of material well-being. This materialism is in part an outcome of the Cultural Revolution which removed historic elements of culture and tradition from China. Amongst other things, the Cultural Revolution rejected beauty as symobolic of the bourgeois. While the Cultural Revolution has been rejected, it might have helped condition the Chinese to accept material outcomes while ignoring outcomes that might exist in other dimensions, such as the spiritual.

It’s yearning for more than functionality that creates a threat

The common refrain is that China will democratise as the middle class grows. But perhaps the desire for beauty over utilitarianism is the real tension between the Party in China and its people. The desire to create or appreciate something of eternal value is at odds with maximising temporal utility. One day, form must become more important than function. This day may not be far off.

As I have already shown, the Chinese middle classes yearn for beauty in their private lives. This demand for beauty in the private sphere has at least two important consequences for political stability in China. First, middle class demands for beauty in their private lives manifests itself in the form of cars, fashion and housing, all of which serve to highlight an increased perception of growing inequality in China. Second, middle class demands for beauty lead to the kind of nimbyism (Not In My BackYard) that constrains development and slows the process by which more people are able to increase their productivity and living standards. These concerns, in turn, highlight two pressing requirements for the CCP: come down hard on corruption and don’t stop investing in reducing inequalities.

One response to “Form and function: the role of beauty in China

  1. It’s not the Opera House it’s the National Center for Performing Arts which contains the Opera House and many other venues.

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